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EU seeks legislative teeth to protect sharks

BRUSSELS — The EU Commission proposed tighter rules to protect sharks last week, including one that obliges fishermen to throw back sharks that are caught accidentally. Many green groups, however, are unimpressed.

"Many people associate sharks with going to the cinema, more than with beaches or restaurants,” said EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg. “But the latest information we have confirms that human beings are now a far bigger threat to sharks than sharks ever were to us."

One of the other key measures proposed is banning fishing boats from hacking off the valuable shark fins on board and then throwing the rest of the carcass back in the water.

However, fin hacking would be allowed as long as the carcass was kept on board.

The EU plan also includes possible temporary fishing exclusion zones to protect young or reproducing sharks and tightened rules on fishing gear to minimize unwanted catches and ensure that such catches are released back into the water.

"Sharks are very vulnerable to over-exploitation and the consequences of depleting their numbers may have very serious consequences not only for sharks but also for marine ecosystems and for fishermen themselves," Borg said.

Green groups were unimpressed, saying the package, which must be approved by member states and the EU parliament, already lacks teeth.

"Sharks are slow-growing and produce relatively small numbers of young,” said Aaron McLoughlin, head of the WWF’s European Marine Program. “Many of these species are already threatened with extinction. The plan lacks a solid commitment to seek mandatory collection of data on shark catch, a critical element if the EU is to succeed in the conservation of these species.”

A recent study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggests that as many as one-third of the shark species living in EU waters are threatened by excessive fishing.

The Madrid-based Oceana group saw "big plans but little action" in the proposals.

"We got a vague document which does not contain measures to achieve the goal of conservation and sustainable management of sharks,” said Ricardo Aguilar, Oceana Europe’s director of investigation. “It appears to have been published out of political obligation,"

Sharks are targeted by British, French, Spanish and Portuguese fleets, with the Spanish fishing fleet taking in more than half of the European catch of around 100,000 tons each year, according to the Shark Alliance, which provided Brussels with data.

Shark meat is served in restaurants across Europe, including at traditional British fish-and-chip shops, according to the WWF.

At a press conference to unveil the European Commission’s plans, Borg said that between 1984 and 2004, world shark catches grew from 600,000 to over 810,000 tons.

Of these, more than half are taken in the North Atlantic, including in the North Sea. A sizeable number are also caught in the Mediterranean.

Borg highlighted the need to protect other vulnerable species, including related species like skates and rays.